Type: Thames Passenger Launch
Length: 80 ft approx.
Beam: 15 ft
Draft: 5 ft
Displacement: 50 tons
Construction: Pitch pine on oak
Harry Hastings, born 1908, Freeman of the City of London and the Company of Watermen & Lightermen was thirty-two years old when, on Tuesday 28th May 1940, he was asked by the Admiralty to take a ship down river to Southend for an undisclosed purpose. Harry was then a lighterman, working for Clemence Nolan. His father, elderly publican of The Gloucester Arms at Kingston, owned Tigris I as well as a number of pleasure steamers and motor boats for public hire. These had already been checked out, categorized and numbered by the Admiralty; earmarked as either hospital ships or fire floats should the need arise.
Tigris I, a former first World War submarine-chaser, had been converted by Tough Brothers at Teddington to a passenger boat, and worked as a summer pleasure cruiser carrying tourists - up to 350 at a time - between Richmond and Hampton Court. She had just been fitted with a new engine which had not even been properly run in. Harry's father asked his son if he, together with fellow-lighterman Bill Clark, then thirty-three and Harry's brother Warren Hastings, who was three years younger, would be prepared to take Tigris I to wherever the Admiralty had in mind. Despite great secrecy over the ultimate destination, they speculated that she was needed to take people - perhaps children - out of London.
Bill Clark later recalled being offered "a day's work and the fare back home" to join Harry and Warren on the trip. Since work was short at Nolans, Bill and Harry were given the week off, and at 7 o'clock on Monday morning Tigris I set off for Gravesend in company with a Billingsgate fish market boat which had also been appropriated. Passing the Royal Albert Docks, they noticed a lock full of ships' lifeboats; the first indication that "something big was on".
Ordered alongside at Westminster Pier which was packed with officers and naval ratings, the crew of Tigris I were dispatched to the ship's chandlers and other local shops to exchange chits for sufficient provisions for four days. They bought tea, bread, eggs, bacon, sugar, meat, candles, cigarettes and filled a trolley which was then trundled back to the boat. With provisions stowed, they were sent first to Southend pier where there were no free berths to be had and Tigris I was moored to another boat. Still believing they could be home by nightfall, the crew prepared to leave the boat, packed with provisions, and return by train. The order to proceed to Sheerness put paid to that.
They lay outside Sheerness harbour until nightfall. Once inside, the crew was ordered ashore by naval ratings with fixed bayonets, who marched them into the office where they were asked to volunteer for Dunkirk. After a 'phone call to the Admiralty and another to alert relatives, they all signed on in the Royal Navy at around £20 pay for a month. Ever afterwards Harry was to say: "We joined up for a month, but one bloody day was enough!" He also tells the story of a man who was not prepared to sign. He went back to the Barley Arms at Twickenham where a woman over-heard him explaining that the boats were going to France. She called the police who arrested him, and in a closed court, because the matter was top secret, he was sent to prison for three months.
At Sheerness, the Navy installed their own personnel both in command and as extra crew, then brought on more provisions and two ladders which would be needed across the Channel.
Then the convoy went to Ramsgate, moored overnight, and next morning sailed to Dover. They were led by a fish-cutter with two machine guns and a triangle of three red lights on the mast. At Dover, Harry recalls, a voice over the Tannoy shouted: "Does anyone want to turn back? Those who want to go on, follow the light on the top of my mast." Forty-five boats set off on convoy, knowing that if they lost the light they could be on their own in a sea of mines. Part way across the same voice shouted: "I'm turning back now. Where you see the smoke coming up, that's Dunkirk. Make for it." Tigris I followed behind Princess Freda - another peace-time passenger boat - and Mears' Margherita. The latter never made the journey. In Harry's words: "A destroyer ran by and put out a huge wave. Margherita went under and didn't come up again, but the two ratings on board surfaced through a hole in the aft end and were picked up".
Bill Clark recalled his first impression of Dunkirk. "Destroyers were coming towards us loaded with troops, some of whom were fully dressed, some half dressed. Away to starboard on the beach some hundreds - no - thousands of men. Some lined up in companies, columns and groups, down to the water's edge. Others, in the background lying on the sand, some sheltering in the sand dunes. Ahead of us there was a lot of noise. The Germans were above us, dropping bombs from the air."
When the bombs were not falling, the sea was calm. There was no wind and the sky was blue. One and a half miles offshore the big destroyers were waiting, unable to sail closer to land. About 250 yards out to sea Tigris I touched the sand and lowered her ladders. But being of wood, these floated on the water making it hard for the troops to climb them. Then the first man, the head of a column, climbed aboard after 72 hours waiting on the sands. Others used the rubbing strakes on the outside of the hull to climb up. But they were two feet apart and hardly wide enough to get a toehold so that they could heave themselves aboard with their packs and rifles. The first run rescued over 400 men; altogether Tigris I is credited with saving 900 lives from the beaches of Dunkirk.
They soon found that they could not get close enough to be of any help on the beaches, so they went into Dunkirk harbour under very dangerous conditions, ferrying troops to the bigger ships outside. Bill Clark again: "On the way out to our destroyer we had to dodge lots of little boats, all loaded and ferrying troops or else empty and on their way to the beaches." On the fourth run a bomb fell close to Tigris I and Harry Hastings was blown out of the wheelhouse by the blast of a bomb, while machine guns strafed the boat. When Harry was hauled out of the foul-smelling and oily sea, from among floating corpses, Tigris I had bullet holes in the deck and funnel and shrapnel had torn into her hull. He was badly shaken, but they went into Dunkirk again.
"Some of those men", Harry says, "had been on the beaches for days; they were in a terrible state, hadn't washed or shaved and stank something awful." Tigris I suffered further damage later that day in collision with a Thames barge.
The breakwater, which had been used for embarkation had suffered a direct hit and lorries had immediately been driven into the water on top of each other to form a makeshift jetty. Tigris I used this to pick up French troops and the last load was delivered to one of Nolan's Tilbury mud-hoppers. With Tigris I badly hit, it was felt that she could not make it home. The naval command ordered her engine to be broken up and the ship to be beached and abandoned. Holed by enemy action, opened up at the seams by the collision and with her pumps unable to cope, she was left amid the debris and carnage of Dunkirk.
Harry Hastings and his crew were taken back to Ramsgate. Not sur-prising, they slept most of the way home. "We felt like death" was Bill Clark's description "I don't know when we last had a wash. No shave since the Saturday. My face was beginning to itch; my feet were swollen and my body sore all over. We were all the same".
At Ramsgate the quay was lined with stalls of tea, coffee, sandwiches, chocolate and tobacco. At the end was a barrier, manned by naval ratings. Harry recalls being marched round to the Merry England for a wash and brush up.
They feared that they might be sent back to Sheerness or, if they left for home, that they would be arrested by the Navy for desertion. Nevertheless, they made for Ramsgate station with only six shillings between them. They took a train to Rochester where they borrowed thirty shillings from Warren's mother in law (out of her rent money under the mantlepiece clock). That got them back to Kingston where they were toasted as heroes in their local pub.
But this was not the end of the Tigris I. Found and refloated by a group of desperate French sailors who plugged up her holes, she was towed across the channel into Ramsgate harbour by a naval tug who had found her crippled off the Goodwin’s. Taken to Sheerness and then to Teddington where she was repaired, Tigris I was put back into civilian use after the war as a houseboat. She was finally broken up in 1985.
Subject of the 2017 book 'The Tigris of Dunkirk' (ISBN 9781973928249)
Also featured in the set of (2015) Palau postage stamps 'The Little Ships of Dunkirk'.
Updated April 2018
Fri, 15/12/2017 - 07:06 — Steve Hastings
Further investigative work uncovered Tigris One (not named 'Tigris I') departed Kingston-upon-Thames on the morning of Tuesday 28th, catching the ebb tide after calling in at Toughs of Teddington. The date confusion is suggested to be from Bill's account, and the Monday being a Bank Holiday, a day became shifted in memories. Fortunately, details pertaining to tides helped readjust the error.
After ~35 years research, I finally completed the book as a dramatised novel:
The Tigris of Dunkirk.
Sat, 20/02/2010 - 15:20
Bill Clark worked for Clement’s, Knowling and Company Limited. His, and Harry's dialects, would have sounded like "Nolan's", but there was no such company operational on the river. It was "Knowling's".
Tigris I made the trip from Kingston, stopping at Teddington, then to Westminster Pier, Gravesend, and Southend Pier, alone. She crossed from Southend Pier to Sheerness, late in the evening of Monday 27th May 1940.
The 'Billingsgate fish market boat' piloted Tigris I from HMS Wildfire to Ramsgate, (probably) departing (according to Bill Clark's dictated account) 11:00 Tuesday 28th May 1940. It is not known if this is the same vessel that piloted them to Dunkirk.
Harry 'Peddler' Palmer was the skipper aboard Margherita, Ted Chittie the skipper aboard Princess Lily, and Jim Whittaker the skipper aboard Princess Freda.
They did not go to Dover. Harry, Warren and Bill would not have known the difference between Dover and Ramgsate, from the sea. Because Calais had fallen, there is no logic to sail Ramsgate to Dover, with Route Z in range of German guns. They sailed via U, V and W buoys, along Route X.
The mud-hopper belonged to the Tilbury Dredging & Lighterage Co. Bill Clark was familiar with her crew (possibly Queen's Channel).
Tigris I was towed back from Pegwell Bay to Gravesend, then eventually up river by the Tough & Henderson tug Barnes, on 28th June 1940, to Tough’s Teddington yard. In August 1940 Toughs began repairs. She was sold in November 1943 to a bank manager, who had been bombed out of his house, and towed up the Grand Union Canal, through the Grosvenor entrance to Davies’ timber wharf, just onto the Paddington Arm, to become a houseboat.
During early 1963, the British Waterways Board undertook a project, to clear the Grand Union Canal and its arms in the London area, of all old and derelict vessels. Most were wooden narrow boat buttys, but amongst them were an admiral’s barge, a naval pinnace and Tigris I.
In interviews, George Mercer, and his brother-in-law John Marks, both B.W.B. employees, remembered towing Tigris I, from Davies’ Timber Wharf, up the canal, for dumping with the other vessels. They were taken to Bowyers flooded gravel pits, located between Denham Green and South Harefield in Hertfordshire. There all the vessels were sunk, and lay underwater until around 1967, when the new owner of the gravel pit, a Mr. Powell, decided to clear the water of obstructions, and convert the northern end of the pit into a marina, linking it directly to the canal itself. The bulk of the wooden buttys in the marina were hauled out and burned between 1967 and 1969, and this would probably have been when Tigris I was finally destroyed.